One of our community members, Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Sa’ed Atshan, has recently come to local and national attention. In brief, Atshan had months ago been invited to give a talk at Friends’ Central School — an elite Quaker college-preparatory schools in Greater Philadelphia — at the request of teachers and students who expressed interest in learning about peaceful activism in the Middle East. However, Atshan never received the chance to share his wisdom. Just two days before the scheduled event date of Feb. 10, he was informed that his invitation had been rescinded. We at the Phoenix stand with our professor and support Atshan in sharing his work and extensive knowledge on the Middle East. We condemn the decision of the Friend’s Central School in thwarting a possibility for the valuable discourse sought by their students and faculty members, and in joining a sweepingly large conglomerate of American institutions that silences peace-activist speech.
Some parents complained to the FSC administration about Atshan, who is a queer Palestinian Quaker, simplistically referring to him as “anti-Israel.” Those of us who have taken courses with Professor Atshan know that he explicitly problematizes and rejects such labels. He reminds us that it is important to affirm the fundamental dignity of Palestinians and Israelis. Atshan’s scholarship and activism emphasize the need for equality, coexistence, and peace for all the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine.
A recent Philadelphia Inquirer article also referenced the Pro-Israeli websites who refer to Atshan as a “leader in the Boycott, Divest, Sanction” (BDS) movement against the state of Israel. While he does support nonviolent activism to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories, Atshan is not actually a leader in the peaceful BDS movement. Professor Atshan did not even plan to talk about BDS at CFS. He had prepared a hopeful and autobiographical reflection aimed at a teenage audience on the power of pacifism, justice, and love. Guided by a desire to pacify emotions and ensure sustained donations, the Head of the School, Craig A. Sellers, ultimately called off the talk.
We at the Phoenix, in recognition of the democratic value of free speech, ethical conduct, and proactive dialogue, support Atshan at a time when he is on the receiving end of misinformation and silencing. However, we also want to shine light on the paradox of repression that is occurring in the form of mass support. We stand firmly in solidarity with the 65 students of Friends’ Central School who walked out of a school-wide meeting last Wednesday to protest the talk cancellation. Other students bravely stood and read a statement, and 40 students organized a facilitated conversation to discuss their concerns as a community. FCS has also received countless emails and phone calls from FCS alumni, groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace, Quakers from around the world, and many others, to express their opposition to the cancellation of Atshan’s talk.
Two school teachers involved in initially inviting Atshan to campus — English Teacher Ariel Eure and History Teacher Layla Helwa — were suspended and put on administrative leave when they supported the students in protest. We find it important to note that both teachers are queer women of color, and have so easily been dismissed and silenced for their peaceful actions. They are banned from school premises, their email accounts have been disabled, and the locks on their doors have been changed. A member of our editorial board witnessed firsthand that students have covered their classroom doors from top to bottom with fluorescent sticky notes with words of encouragement, love, and support.
With the same integrity that we encourage open dialogue, we also acknowledge and respect the decision of both Atshan and these teachers for refusing comment at this moment. Mainstream media in the United States indeed has the capacity to twist the intentions of words, and for those who embody historically marginalized identities, fear of speaking on issues that are politically contentious or whose conversations are steered by powerful lobbying and political groups is grounded in the very real possibility of unlawful retribution and violence.
As members of a Quaker institution, we are particularly disappointed in Friends’ Central School for choosing potential monetary support over the Quaker value of tolerance and collaborative decision-making. In a recent email to the CFS community, Sellers acknowledged that, “There was a fundamental breakdown in process. We simply did not approach this very sensitive topic with adequate community dialogue.”